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Bryan County man fighting flesh-eating bacteria

POSTED: July 17, 2014 10:21 p.m.

A local man was in critical condition at a Savannah hospital after reportedly fishing near Dasher’s Landing on the Ogeechee River last week and contracting a bacterial infection commonly known as the flesh-eating disease.

The man, Joseph Allen, contracted necrotizing fasciitis, caused by bacteria infecting an open wound, after his boat broke down and he entered the water, according to media reports.

Health officials say necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by different kinds of bacteria that have been around for decades.

Dr. Sarah Barbour of St. Joseph’s/Candler Health System said a healthy person swimming in the river shouldn’t be any more concerned about necrotizing fasciitis than they have been in the past. The bacteria normally cause the infection in susceptible hosts, including those who have liver disease, are diabetic or are “immune compromised” in another way, according to Barbour.

Necrotizing fasciitis infects the layer between muscle and tissue, according to Barbour, and normally if a person gets a deep cut while swimming where the bacteria is present. It is a rapidly progressive infection, she said, and it destroys tissue in a couple of days.

It usually requires extensive surgery to remove that tissue, and if it’s not done in a timely manner patients do poorly, said Barbour. She said signs of the infection are excruciating pain and the person’s condition worsening quickly.

State officials have not issued any health alerts.

The most common bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, known as the “flesh-eating bacteria” disease, are “found in our environment and are ever-present,” said Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn. “Nobody can say it is more prevalent at any time or place.”

Coastal Health District Director Dr. Diane Weems didn’t refer to specific cases in an emailed statement but said necrotizing fasciitis is “itself not a reportable disease.”

“Necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by a variety of bacteria and some, but not all, are reportable to public health if they cause an invasive infection such as necrotizing fasciitis,” Weems said. “Some bacteria can be found in fresh water lakes/rivers but their association with causing necrotizing fasciitis is rare and hence the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend people avoid swimming; however, the CDC does recommend that people not swim when they have open wounds allowing for entry of disease-causing germs.”

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